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Sudan: How to help Noura in Sudan and similar cases?

Thursday 17 May 2018, by siawi3

Source:, 18.05.18

Scott Douglas Jacobsen interviews Marieme Helie Lucas on how best to help Noura in Sudan and other similar cases

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How are the gender roles and legal rights different and unequal for men and women in many Islamic theocracies?

Marieme Helie Lucas:
I feel that your question presupposes that so-called Muslim countries - or Muslim majority countries - are automatically theocracies; that is definitely not the case, they are mostly democracies, technically speaking. And as far as knowing whether they are ‘Islamic’ i.e. really in conformity with Islam, or not – it would be for theologians to say so… This is why I do not use the term ‘Islamic’ which refers to a doctrine, a philosophy, an ideology, a vision of the world, a faith, and I use the term ‘Muslim’, which refers to human beings who claim faith in this ideology, and to what they do in the name of their faith. We are not here debating at the level of ideas, but of actions, laws, practices, i.e. of sociology and politics. In actual fact Muslim majority countries are anything but homogenous; they range from theocracies to democracies, from ultra conservative to socialist in name.
The rights granted to citizens in general and to women in particular therefore vary from country to country; factors that account for these differences are essentially political, economical – far more than religiously grounded.

If you read the Koran – or the Bible for that matter -, you will find both the god of wrath and punishment, and the god of mercy and tolerance. You can endlessly oppose progressive and conservative theologians in Islam, all armed with their antagonistic quotes from the holy book…But isn’t it similar to what happens in Christianity, between those who have a progressive reading of the text and their opponents?

The problem indeed is political: who makes what political use of religion, where and when, in which circumstances - that is the real question. What is the balance of forces between those - and the defenders and advocates of secularism is the next question. This is what really determines the status of women, among others. In Muslim contexts like anywhere else.

The real problem is that for some time already, ultra conservative political forces have been steadily growing and they are now taking over in many regions in the world (a good number of countries are led by the far-right in Europe at the moment - with Catholics and Orthodox Christian fundamentalists next to it -, and both far-right and evangelicals are rising hand in hand in Trump’s America, to start with). The particular form the rise of the extreme right is taking in some countries is through religions (See Modi’s India with the rise of Hindu fundamentalists to power and the ensuing backlash on minorities, see also the Buddhist far-right terror in Myanmar and Sri Lanka). This is definitely the case in Muslim majority contexts – but this should be analyzed, not as a specificity of “Islam”, but as part of the broad rise of the far-right the world over.

Indeed, in predominantly Muslim contexts, gender roles and legal rights are different and unequal for men and women – but more so under conservative governments and less so under democratic ones ; and even less so in socialist regimes. Even though Islam was still the religion of the vast majority of people in Libya, Iraq, Syria or in the Central Asia Republics, women had the right to vote (sometimes long before some European women did, French women for instance only gained voting rights in 1945, i.e. after WWII; as for Swiss women, a last canton gave them voting rights in the last decade – would you believe it?), girls went to school (virtually 100% in primary schools in Libya, and those who went to university received state grants). Meanwhile, in some rich oil countries in the Arabic peninsula – and not just in impoverished isolated Muslim communities in Asia and Africa – women were secluded and maintained in illiteracy…
In the so-called ‘Muslim world’, one can find all the political shades vis a vis women: for instance, from quasi equality in marriage laws to the most horrendous submission of women to their male relatives, - father and husband first and foremost.
If we want to fight it, we better be clear that we are being confronted to a far-right movement working under the guise of religion. In our case it is Islam, but in other cases it is Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc… To believe that ‘Islam’ is the cause of inequity between men and women is to look at the tip of the iceberg. At the moment, for instance, many countries in Europe are facing reiterated attempts at curtailing reproductive rights, from Spain to Poland, you name it… Would you say religion is the cause or would you name the far-right forces (eventually backed by Christian fundamentalists) that use Christianism and fear of god to prevent women’s access to contraception and abortion?
Let me clarify one thing: this is NOT a defense of ‘Islam’, i’m just trying to position ourselves better in understanding the political forces we are confronting, whether or not they pretend to represent Islam. We should not fall into the trap they set for us.

Jacobsen: What are the rights violations and gender inequality in the situation for Noura Hussein Hammad?

Helie Lucas:
Traditionally, ‘marriage’ in Muslim contexts usually takes place in two parts: one is the signature of the marriage contract and the other is the consummation of the marriage – these are two occasions of festivities. The time span between these events can be from a few days to a few years. In Noura’s case, it was a few years. She was married against her will, i.e. her father signed the contract as her legal tutor, her wali, when she was 16. This is legal in Sudan and in a number of Muslim countries, especially those following the Maliki school of thought - but not in all predominantly Muslim countries. The bride does not even have to be present during this signature, as she is ’represented’, as a minor, by her wali. Then Noura was sent to her husband’s house for the consummation of the marriage when she was 19. She never flinched in her refusal of this marriage. Both Sudanese laws and international law prohibit forced marriages. The problem is that it comes in conflict with the institution of wali, which maintains women in a status of forever legal minority, with male tutors signing contracts in women’s place. The institution of wali is specific to the Maliki ritual that prevails mostly in North Africa; it is not practiced in all schools of thought in Islam.
Although forced marriages are generally prohibited under the law of the land, not all countries take it to heart to implement these laws.
This is also a child marriage. However under the growing influence of fundamentalist preachers, the actual – and sometimes also the legal – age of marriage has been decreasing to actual puberty of girls; in many places today, girls are married off as early as age 9 or 10.

The second violation committed against Noura is rape – and not just, if I may say, ‘marital rape’, but it is gang rape, as - in order to crush her physical resistance -, husband sought help from several of his male relatives in order to pin her down and hold her arms and legs while he was raping her in front of them. From what her lawyers said, she had bruises and scars from the fight. The day after this horrendous ‘marriage’, when the ‘husband’ tried to rape her again, she defended herself with a knife and killed him. She then went to her father’s house, but he disowned her and took her to the police.
She was convicted with murder and sentenced to death. With no consideration for the circumstances, and for a case of self defense. Hence Amnesty International’ recent demand that this judgment be annulled and for a more equitable trial to take place.
Apparently, Sudan, like some other Muslim countries – not all – have a legal provision for ‘blood money’: the family of the victim can demand a financial compensation for their loss, - rather than a death sentence for the culprit. In Noura’s case, the late husband’s family refused compensation and demanded the death sentence.

Jacobsen: How can gender roles advance within Islam? How can progressivism provide a better foundation for the rights of women compared to conservatism and traditional religion?

I am afraid that it is not ‘within Islam’ that we should all fought together for advancing women’s rights – but within each of our societies. I feel no responsibility for changing Islam from within, or Christianity or any other religion for that matter. As a citizen, I feel responsibility for changing laws in democratic ways, towards more equality between all human beings, regardless of class, age, sex, beliefs, etc…. As a secularist, I do not want to live under non-voted un-changeable a-historical supposedly-divine laws. This is the essence of democracy.
Many activists in predominantly Muslim contexts work hard and take enormous risks to fight conservatism, to promote progressive ideas – including for women’s status in society - , to change regressive laws. In Algeria, women have been fighting since 1984 to put an end to the institution of wali, so that women be finally considered legal adults and not forever minors who cannot enter into a contract, by themselves, without a male tutor. So far, they have not succeeded. The courageous women’s rights organization “20 ans Barakat !” (‘20 years is enough!’) promoted this struggle with a powerful clip that you all should watch in order to realize how many women (and men) are engaged into this type of struggle, on the ground, in our countries.

Vidéo here: WACHDAK :collectif “20 ans barakat”par ...
▶ 4:33

The clip shows for instance, women’s demonstrations in the capital-city, Algiers, during which fundamentalist threw home-made bombs at demonstrators.
These initiatives need to be supported – not led - from the outside. In Sudan, on the forefront are the women’s rights and human rights organizations that are leading the struggle for Noura’s rights. They do so at great risk for themselves.

These progressive forces exist everywhere in Muslim contexts, just as they do elsewhere. But they are little considered outside their countries – especially in the West which globally tends to ignore them. Noura’s case is a good opportunity to reach out in solidarity to progressive, feminist, humanist, secular forces in our parts of the world. It is an opportunity to create working links that would last even after we save Noura’s life - as I am now convinced we will, collectively, manage to do.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.